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The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Shortcuts Between Distances


Translating between languages tends to be a highly ethical practice, or at the least one that stimulates frequent conversation about ethics. This is especially true in the present day, when international discourse places high value on respecting other cultures. An ethical breach can take many forms, from misguided translation choices to intentional efforts to redefine a work of literature in a different and distortional manner. This series explores some of the ethical challenges translators face, either due to the challenge of the translation itself or willingly, while reflecting on the continuing debates between translators, translation scholars and others about what constitutes an ethical breach.

The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:

5. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Shortcuts Between Distances

6. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Translating Geography

7. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: From Language To Motion Picture

8. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Ideology

The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Shortcuts Between Distances

Shortcuts between languages manifest themselves in numerous ways in literary translation. Vocabulary frequently comes to mind, as when matching rhythm with rhythm, or the literal meaning of words as close as can be. In some cases, words have a more universal meaning: salt, for instance, has unambiguous corresponding words in every other language that has had even the most basic experience with the substance. In other cases, there are numerous “untranslatables” – words like schadenfreude, švejkovina and weltschmerz that would need to be imported as loanwords into other languages. In literary translation, this tends to be a less tricky issue to deal with: salt becomes das Salz or sól, while weltschmerz is imported into the target language without changing it. Vocabulary is, however, merely the most basic component.

Figure 1: Differences between British English and American English (2020)

If salt was simply the same as das Salz, translation would be the most straightforward art, but naturally, it is more intricate. While language is frequently viewed as a simple receptacle of meaning, language almost always comprises meaning beyond the literal. It is, when properly constructed and brought together as a greater literary work, the programming for an entire cultural worldview. As Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is quoted as saying: “Communication between human beings is the basis and process of evolving culture. Values are the basis of people’s identity, their sense of particularity as members of the human race. All of this is carried by language. Language as culture is the collective memory bank of a people’s experience in history” (Mac Siomoin, 2014, p. 14).

In a manner of speaking, salt in English is a building block of the Anglo-American worldview, while das Salz is a building block of the German, Austrian and Swiss worldviews, and those diverse perspectives are very frequently the otherness literary translators aspire to render into their native languages. Nevertheless, translating otherness of that potency into other languages is an enormous task, which is why both authors and translators alike have sought to do so via "shortcuts."

Figure 2: Japanese author Minae Mizumura, photographed by Toyota Horiguchi (n.d.)

The Colonial Language Shortcut

The remaining relevance of postcolonialism in literature decades after the end of the Colonial Era is in large part due to the continued use of European languages by African writers, particularly English and French. Knowing what we mentioned before about languages constructing a worldview, there are many case studies to observe in Africa, given that African writers have rejected their native languages in order to write what Ngugi Wa Thiong’o calls “Europhonic African literature,” a process which in turn is generated by what Thiong’o goes on to call “literary identity theft” (Mac Siomoin, 2020, p. 17). Literary identity theft not only brain drains African languages of writers and intellectuals who would otherwise help enrich those languages; less literature and important work means less incentive for translators to find any translation work from those languages.

Thiong’o’s switch from English into his native Kikuyu language was not just a brave artistic choice: it was a revolutionary act that landed him in prison. Thiongo’s choice was partly due to accessibility, since as he wrote, “there is a reality in Africa that 90 percent of the population speaks different languages… When you write a novel in English –no matter how radical, no matter how progressive– it can only reach people in a trickle-down fashion.”

Figure 3: Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong'o portrayed by photographer Steve Zylius (2019)

In this case, literary identity theft robs 90 percent of the population of an entire continent of literary and intellectual sustenance –let alone achievements– that would only serve to enrich African languages, plus slowly but surely prepare them to co-exist among global languages, though Thiong’o calls that state of being a “war zone”. As Thiong’o also writes, “what we [postcolonial authors] are doing is expanding the capacity of the English language…It is ok to make English our own or French our own…but you can’t tell me that by writing in English [Joseph] Conrad was somehow helping the Polish language.”

Europhonic African Literature in English has gone a long way toward providing Westerners with an African perspective, while also carving out a distinct African voice in English. From the perspective of translation, however, it is a shortcut, inasmuch as it intentionally avoids utilizing the full extent of cultural memory, while accomplishing nothing for the local languages but something maybe significant, yet small, in the global language. Chinua Achebe attributed his choice of English over Igbo to, among other factors, Igbo not being ready for a novel yet (Morrow & Achebe, 1991). But if not then, when? It is most fortunate that nowadays authors writing in African languages have been translated from languages like Wolof and even Afrikaans –which shares a lot of the same neglect as its Bantu neighbors– into English. While there is relatively little to translate, it is hopeful that these translations will encourage more African writers to write in their native languages.

Figure 4: Translation scholar Michael Cronin, photographed for the Royal Irish Academy (2021)

The Shortcut of Collective Memory Depreciation

In one of his essays, translation scholar Michael Cronin, while discussing language paradoxes related to Irish Gaelic, brings up an example of how the English language influences form in contemporary Irish Gaelic: “If one was to speak on the ludic uses of translation in the prose writings of a contemporary Irish Gaelic novelist, Seámus Mac Annaidh, it would be necessary to provide examples of how English informs Mac Annaidh’s Gaelic and is then parodied to create a new hybrid language that energises the speech of his young, urban characters“ (Cronin, 1994, pp. 94-95).

There are many fascinating things both unfortunate and –possibly– hopeful about this example that could be unpacked at length. What is interesting for the purposes of this article is the effect upon Irish Gaelic; whether used to express a contemporary form of Irish Gaelic or simply as a literary device to represent English-speaking children in Irish Gaelic prose without resorting to English, it represents a depreciation of Thiongo’s aforementioned cultural memory bank. In keeping with Thiong’o’s style of terminology, this process will be called “collective memory depreciation.“

Figure 5: Seámus Mac Annaidh, Irish Gaelic author, portrayed by Máire Uí Mhaicín (2011)

As affected as Irish Gaelic is by its postcolonial conditions, collective memory depreciation does not affect Irish Gaelic alone. Contemporary Japanese author Minae Mizumura wrote a book about an equivalent phenomenon in the Japanese language which, unlike Irish Gaelic or Thiongo’s native Kikuyu language, is a major language of a prosperous country that was also a former imperial power. Mizumura simply calls it “the fall of Japanese,” which in English translation is universalized from “when the Japanese language falls” into “the fall of language” (Mizumura, 2015, p. ix). Apparently, no language on such a wide spectrum is immune from collective memory depreciation, a phenomenon connected in Mizumura’s perspective to Japan’s “vain attempt to ‘globalize’” (Mizumura, 2015, p. 199).

If collective memory depreciation is realized via globalization or other such forces, the consequences to literary translation would be terrible in the long term. Literature from languages whose collective memory is Anglicized or Americanized will have none of the hindrances found with classical literature, such as cultural accessibility. Then what would be the point of translating that literature in the first place when an oversaturated English-language market already exists? Nonetheless, much of this future Anglophonic literature will be translated anyway. That is the shortcut: for if collective memory depreciation thoroughly alters the languages of the world both major and minor, the word salt will become perfectly translatable with its counterparts in terms of both core meaning and cultural worldview alike.


K. David Harrison, who studied the core information of language from an anthropological perspective, once wrote that “when ideas go extinct, we all grow poorer” (Harrison, 2007, p. vii), and with the extinction of these ideas, the art of translation also depreciates as an art. While contemporary translators have shown an historically-unprecedented sensitivity towards the cultural perspectives they translate, none of it will matter if the effects of collective memory depreciation are realized.

Figure 6: K. David Harrison, prominent linguist and anthropologist, by Jeremy Fahringer (n.d.)

In a situation like this, it is perhaps insightful to bring back a real historical character mentioned in a previous article: Lin Shu, pioneering translator of European literature into Chinese the late 19th century. Lin Shu was unconcerned with importing “Europeanness” into Chinese, his main criteria being the enjoyable nature of the story and how it would resonate with Chinese readers. As a result, he was not afraid to Sinicize his translations to a degree that would be considered criminal by many Anglosphere translators.

The titles Lin Shu chose for his translations tell a lot about the cultural perspective into which he sought to find a place for these at-the-time alien cultural works of art. Oliver Twist was translated literally into Thieve’s History, in reference to characters in Dickens' novel who are pickpockets. Uncle Tom’s Cabin also got a new title: A Black Slave’s Cry To Heaven (Qi, 2012, p. 44). The importance of the concept of heaven in Chinese culture is well known in the West, even colloquially. In contrast, the quaint, rural conveyance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin made more sense for rural, hearth-loving Americans of the time for whom cabins, however humble, were a cozy refuge from the wilderness.

Figure 7: Lin Shu, pioneering translator of European literature into Chinese (n.d.)

Though Lin Shu’s title is not Harriet Beecher Stowe’s original, it does not reflect erroneously upon the novel’s story; it is successfully repackaged for a very different culture while preserving the core universality. While Lin Shu’s indifference towards the source culture likely meant that little, if anything, of American culture was brought into Chinese, it also meant that a modern novel like Uncle Tom’s Cabin could seamlessly fit into a tradition defined by ancient classics predating the founding of America. For Lin Shu, there were no shortcuts. He gave his Chinese readers what Mizumura hopes to advocate for in Japan: “a sense that in the Japanese written word they have a true spiritual homeland” (Mizumura, 2015, p. 200).

Bibliographical References

Harrison, K. D. (2008). When languages die: The extinction of the world’s languages and the erosion of human knowledge. Oxford University Press.

Inani, R. and Thiong'o, N. W. (2018, March 9). Language is a “War Zone”: A conversation with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. The Nation.

Mac Síomóin, T. (2014). The broken harp: Identity and language in modern Ireland. Nuascéalta.

Mac Síomóin, T. (2020). The Gael becomes Irish: An unfinished odyssey. Nuascéalta

Mizumura, M. (2015). The Fall of Language in the Age of English. Columbia University Press

Morrow, B. and Achebe, C. (1991). An Interview, by Chinua Achebe. Conjunctions.

Murakami, H. (2014). Kafka on the Shore. Vintage International.

Qi, S. (2012). Western Literature in China and the Translation of a Nation. Springer.

Simon, S. (2018). The Language of Cultural Difference: Figures of Alterity in Canadian Translation. In L. Venuti (Ed.), Rethinking Translation: Discourse, Subjectivity, Ideology (pp. 159–176). Routledge.

Simon, S. (2018). The Language of Cultural Difference: Figures of Alterity in Canadian Translation. In L. Venuti (Ed.), Rethinking Translation: Discourse, Subjectivity, Ideology (pp. 159–176).

Thiong’o, N. W. (2004). Moving the centre: The struggle for cultural freedoms. Oxford Currey.

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Felix Purat

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